Mark Twain’s House

     HARTFORD, Conn. – One second after I stepped through the big carved wooden door into Mark Twain’s house, onto the marble floor in the walnut hall designed by Louis Tiffany, I said, “Oh, my God.”
     Cool hall.
     The first floor is walnut. The second floor is butternut. The third floor is pine.
     Sam Clemens and his pals hung out on the third floor.
     Sam’s billiard room and an adjoining guest room are on the third floor. A little speaking tube in the billiard room wall ends in the first-floor kitchen. I imagine Sam occasionally called down for another bucket of beer. Couple of cool balconies on the third floor too, including a big one Sam called the Texas Deck.

     You can call up pictures of Sam’s house on the Internet and look at it for free. I don’t have to describe it for you. It’s a beautiful creation.
     Sam paid Louis Tiffany $5,000 to design the interior. This was before Mr. Tiffany had become famous – in fact, it was just as Tiffany was starting out. He did a good job on Sam’s house. Then he started tinkering around with stained glass.
     Sam Clemens was one of those rare human beings who was not only a great artist, but a good man.
     Few great artists are also great men – or even good ones.
     Picasso? Hemingway? Stravinsky? Charlie Parker? Miles Davis?
     Great artists, yes, but great men?
     Sorry, no.
     Shakespeare? Homer?
     Who knows?
     Sam was a great reporter before he became an artist. Our country will never again produce a writer so great, though that’s just an accident of history – because what Sam did, and saw, and recorded, will never come again.
     Sam Clemens made the whole world love the United States.
     Think about that.
     Sam lived in Hartford with his beautiful wife Livy and his three daughters for 17 years. The house has a big old porch. It’s got a beautiful library with a carved wooden mantle over the fireplace that came from a Scottish castle, and a greenhouse with a fountain. Sam’s daughters – Clara, Suzy and Jean – played by the fountain in the greenhouse while Sam read in the library.
     Across the lawn is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house.
     Sam and the Stowes and the Beechers were the core of a sort of hippie colony in Hartford in the 1870s and 1880s. They used to call each other by their first names, and enter one another’s houses without knocking, even at dinnertime, and sit down to dinner without a suit coat, and without being invited.
     Imagine such a thing.
     Sam wrote some of his greatest books – some of our country’s greatest books – while he lived in that house, including “Huckleberry Finn,” “Tom Sawyer,” and the greatest report ever written about the United States: “Life on the Mississippi.”
     Let me quote from “Life on the Mississippi,” in which Sam describes the Civil War cemetery at Vicksburg:
     “Everything about this cemetery suggests the hand of the national Government. The Government’s work is always conspicuous for excellence, solidity, thoroughness, neatness. The Government does its work well in the first place, and then takes care of it.”
     Sam wasn’t kidding. He lived and died before a man could get a reputation by trashing the government.
     What’s more, when Sam criticized a powerful man, he did it to his face. Dig up a copy of his speeches and read how Sam introduced Winston Churchill to a banquet after the Boer War. He politely, and clearly, called him a cold-blooded mass murderer. He said Churchill knew everything about war and nothing about peace. Then he smiled and sat down and let Churchill have his say.
     Next to Sam’s house is the new Mark Twain Museum, a creation that surely would have delighted and infuriated Sam Clemens. It contains the Paige Compositor: a 4½-ton monstrosity with 18,000 moving parts that was supposed to set type six times faster than the fastest human.
     That machine worked exactly once: on the occasion that Sam dropped by to see it. He lost $200,000 on it.
     Sam paid off the debt by lecturing around the world for more than a year, and writing a book about the trip, called “Following the Equator.”
     Also in the Mark Twain Museum is a letter Sam wrote to the president of Yale University on Christmas Eve 1885, offering to pay law school tuition for Warner T. McGuinn.
     McGuinn was a young black man.
     Sam wrote to the president of Yale: “We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.”
     McGuinn declined Sam’s offer, according to his 1937 obituary in the Baltimore Sun. McGuinn told the dean of Yale University: “I am making it all right.”
     The dean replied, “Yes, we know you are, but we would like to see what you could do if you were unhampered.”
     So McGuinn accepted Sam’s offer, and they became friends.
     The good that Sam did lived after him. McGuinn graduated from Yale and became a successful attorney in Baltimore. He served two terms on the City Council and was a vocal advocate for women’s rights. He helped organize the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.
     In arguing a 1917 civil rights case – 7 years after Sam Clemens died – McGuinn objected to the opposing counsel’s arguments so often that U.S. District Judge John Rose told him, “Leave him alone, Mr. McGuinn, he’s doing the best he can.”
     McGuinn won that case, and prevented Baltimore from segregating more areas of the city.
     In Baltimore, McGuinn met another young lawyer and became his mentor. That young fellow was named Thurgood Marshall.

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